“Simply Unjust”: Robert Reich on the Oakland Teachers’ Strike

By Dianna Bautista

The Oakland teachers’ strike is the latest in a series of recent labor protests that began in West Virginia a year ago and hit southern California last month with Los Angeles’s historic six-day walkout.

For the past week, classrooms in Oakland have been mostly empty as public school teachers took to the picket lines to protest wages and working conditions at the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). Led by the Oakland Education Association (OEA) union, they struck for similar demands as their peers nationwide: better wages––specifically a 12% pay raise over the next three years; smaller class sizes; and closer regulation of charter schools. At the core of the strike is a need for more funding to support under-resourced students and their teachers who are increasingly burdened by the Bay Area’s high cost of living.

Earlier today, the strikers reached a tentative agreement with OUSD. A vote is expected sometime tomorrow.

This week we talked to former U.S. Secretary of Labor and current UC Berkeley professor of public policy, Robert Reich, who spoke at an OEA rally about his frustration with Oakland’s public education system and the desperate need for support.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

According to a study from 2016, the wage gap between teachers and comparable workers in California is better than in most other states. Is this not the case in Oakland?

The cost of living here is among the highest in the country. If you consider the cost of living, California teachers are not doing well at all. On top of that, Oakland teachers have to deal with relatively large classes and the multifaceted problems of poverty, race, and communities and families that have very few resources. Piling all of this on these teachers is neither fair nor sustainable. If we want talented people in our classrooms in Oakland, at the least we have to pay them enough. Ideally, we also need smaller classrooms and more support staff.

Over the past 25 years, Oakland has seen its share of teacher strikes––the last one in 2010 and the one before that in 1996. In both cases they were asking for better pay and smaller class sizes. Are we just in an endless cycle?

I hope not, for the sake of Oakland. But the fact of the matter is that the local property tax base in Oakland is lower per pupil than the property tax base in places like Piedmont or Orinda or Palo Alto. As long as we continue to fund a part of our school budget on the basis of local property tax and we have geographic segregation by income and race, places like Oakland are not going to have enough resources for what their children need. It is simply unjust that in the richest country in the world our poorest and neediest children should have fewer resources per child––fewer educational resources per child––than our upper middle class and wealthy children.

What would you say is a solution to overcome this discrepancy?

One solution would be for the state government––California––to assume more responsibility for financing the education of poor kids in the state or [students] who are in districts where there is a disproportionate number of poor families. And also to lobby Washington to get more Title I resources for children in places like Oakland.

Money is not sufficient. There are many other things that need to be done, but money is necessary; if you don’t have at least adequate resources you can’t even begin to fix the problem.

Is it even feasible for teachers, at least in Oakland’s case, to live in the city where they teach?

It should be a goal. It’s going to be. As Oakland gentrifies, as the entire Bay gentrifies, it’s getting harder and harder for teachers to live in the same geographic area that they teach in, and that’s becoming a more generalized problem––for firefighters, police officers, for large numbers of people in the service sector.

With teachers it’s a particularly difficult problem because teachers really need to be there for the kids. We don’t want our teachers to be commuting an hour each way between school and their home.

You mentioned in your speech at the rally that the Oakland Unified School District does have the budget to pay its teachers, but the district says that it doesn’t have. Can you explain?

When the OUSD says it doesn’t have the budget, what it probably means is that they cannot or do not want to take the money from other important uses or important goals, and I can completely understand that. But that means that Oakland needs to go to the state or that OUSD needs to go to the city and say ‘we need more resources.’ And the city, if it doesn’t have resources, needs to go to the state and say ‘we need to have more resources.’ And if the state doesn’t have the resources, the state needs to go to the federal government. Again, I just want to emphasize that we are the richest country in the world. If a particular jurisdiction, or a particular city, doesn’t have the resources, they have to advocate, they have to take action, they have to get the resources. Simply saying we don’t have the resources is not the end of the discussion.

Where would the end of the discussion be?

As I said, they go to the city, and the city then goes to the state, and the state then goes to the federal government, if necessary. The discussion probably has to go beyond Oakland. I mean why, for example, should Piedmont be a separate school district in a separate city inside Oakland that has a far better tax base and far better schools? Why shouldn’t Oakland have schools that are as good as Orinda? Why shouldn’t Oakland have schools that are as good as these other cities?

Realistically, how do you see all of this being resolved?

It’s very difficult to say. Oakland teachers have spent over two years trying to negotiate. Nobody I know wants to strike. Striking is not fun. Striking is very, very difficult. Teachers go without pay. They’d much rather be in classrooms. They worry about their students. I hope this doesn’t persist, but it must be a wakeup call not just to Oakland officials, not just to Bay Area officials, but to people across California. We cannot endure the kind of inequality that we are now tolerating. If we believe in the concept of equal opportunity, we can’t shortchange our children.

There has been a lot of talk about charter schools and how they’re siphoning money from the OUSD. In the past you’ve said you support charter schools if they follow certain regulations. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Charter schools are fine if they don’t cherrypick. If they don’t make it difficult for students to get in or kick students out if they aren’t meeting the grade. The problem in Oakland is that many Oakland teachers in charter schools are having an even worse time than Oakland teachers in public schools. They’re getting paid very little. They don’t have a public pension. They work on weekends. Many of them have joined in solidarity with public school teachers. The issue is not charter schools, the issue is teachers and classrooms. Whatever label you put on them, teachers and students are getting a raw deal in Oakland. And Oakland is getting a raw deal. And Oakland parents are getting a raw deal. Those children are getting a raw deal.

Filed under: Law + Policy
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Robert Reich is the best spokesperson that UC has and even he is unable to motivate We The People to demand that our politicians save our democracy and the human race. Education is our best defense but politicians in Washington are failing to overcome the power of money that controls them, causing the destruction of our planet and quality of life for our newest and future generations as current events in Washington prove daily. Environmental disasters in the past few years are accelerating around the world and none of our institutions are protecting us from the warnings in the 2006 “Global Warning” issue of CALIFORNIA magazine. The tragedy is that even Robert couldn’t motivate the powers that be to unite to prevent this.
Let me state first off that I am a retired engineer whose career was in the corporate sphere. I have never been a teacher, but do have a relative and a few friends that are now retired public school teachers, both at the grammar school and high school levels. Thus, my comments are based upon someone looking at the teacher compensation issue from the outside, but with some knowledge of the topic. The pay rate for public school teachers does seem extremely low as compared to other occupations which require at least a baccalaureate degree and are occupations which provide service to the general public. It would seem appropriate that teacher pay scales should be consistent with other local government pay such as that of the Police and Fire Departments. Further, the teachers’ pay should be dependent upon demonstrating competency in their field of education using bi-annual peer and supervisory review and successfully passing periodic tests and/or continuing education. Such tests should be developed by teachers in the next (upper) level of education. This would require that Intermediate School teachers would develop the tests for Grammar School teachers, and so on up the educational ladder. This would go a long way to insure that students are being adequately prepared for the next level.